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Even before Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin joined Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission that took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he seems to have been predestined to walk on the moon. His mother’s maiden name was Moon and his father was an aviator.
“Learning to fly was just the option,” Aldrin said. And that option took him to historical heights on July 20, 1969.
On Sunday, the 84-year-old astronaut was celebrating the 45th anniversary of the moon landing in Florida with Neil Armstrong’s widow, Carol, and Mike Collins, who was the third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission.
Aldrin vividly remembers what it was like that Sunday when he went where no one else had gone before.
“I had looked out the window when Neil went down, and I saw that he was able to move around easily as he scooped up to pick up sample,” Aldrin said. “It was my turn to come down … The checklist provided said, ‘Hold onto the rail and see how stable you are.’ I didn't have to do that, it was easy. I had been trained. Moving around on the moon was easier than it is on Earth.”
Once he was out of the spacecraft, the view made an instant impact.
“The scene I immediately saw was the brightness of the gray dust around with the shadows,” he said. “And the horizon was so clear. You can just imagine it curving away.”
Apollo 11’s success was the realization of a promise President John F. Kennedy made seven years earlier and it continues to inspire people like 11-year-old, Evan.
“I'm very fascinated,” said Evan, who was visiting the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum Complex in New York City. “It's very cool because like no one really goes up there. No one knew what it was like up there until they went and they got to be the first to see it. “
The pioneering event did more than instill pride in Americans. It also was a precursor to a lot of modern technology.
“All the astronauts -- they get to have this amazing experience where they get to leave the Earth and be able to see a new perspective,” said Denisse Aranda, a contaminator control engineer and planetary protection specialist at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “But then thousands of us that are here on the ground that enable all the technology that we can use at everyday life. There's an intrinsic value to knowing the work that you're doing is improving human life here on Earth and you don't need to go all the way to space to enable that technology.”
Without the moon landing, consumers wouldn’t have things such as cell phones, according to longtime NBC News space reporter and author of “Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight” Jay Barbree.
“It was arguably the most technological event in the 20th century. When they accomplished the walk on the moon, they jumped 50 years ahead in technology,” he said. “It was the original development of the digital computer, that's why Neil was capable of landing there, staying there for 22 hours and lifting off as well.”
All of the scientific gains sparked by the Apollo 11 mission are being used to reach the next big space success: Reaching Mars.
“We're doing some real big things in terms of deep space exploration. We're also going to Mars, which is so exciting,” Aranda said. “There's an opportunity to explore the planet it ways that we've never done it before.”
It’s feat for which Aldrin would love to see the U.S. make a timeline.
“The time to do it should be announced when we're a little more ready than we are now,” he said. “Let's say five years, the 50th anniversary of reaching the moon -- a time when we'll be looking back on the wonderful things that have emanated from our space program.”
As for his personal legacy, the man who soared to unforeseen heights as an astronaut, became a professor and even appeared on “Dancing with the Stars” wants people to see him as an innovator and much more.
“I want to be known as a global statesman,” Aldrin said, “somebody who has tried to represent the best for humanity in our national, human curiosity of moving outward in space.”